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By the late 1970s, the tremendous creative license the major studios under a new generation of production chiefs had granted the young tyros of the 1960s – Coppola, Scorsese, et al – had expired as each managed to deliver at least one, major, back-breaking flop. For Scorsese, it had been the grim musical New York, New York (1977, $13.8 million U.S. vs. a budget of $14 million); Peter Bogdanovich turned out a streak of losers including period piece Daisy Miller (1974), comedy Nickelodeon (1976), and another disastrous musical, At Long Last Love (1975, $1.5 million U.S./$6 million cost); after the back-to-back hits of The French Connection and The Exorcist, William Friedkin delivered Sorcerer (1977, $6 million U.S. against a crushing $22 million cost); and Francis Coppola, after a string of commercial and/or critical home runs including The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), turned out One from the Heart (1982, an abysmal box office take of less than $500,000 against a bank-busting $26 million cost).
But perhaps the most emblematic failure of the auteur-centric trend of the period was Heaven’s Gate (1980), an ambitious epic Western written and directed by a Michael Cimino just coming off the triumph of The Deer Hunter (1978), a commercial hit which had won him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. The critically drubbed Heaven’s Gate cost a whopping (for the time) $35 million, grossed a mere $3.5 million U.S., permanently derailed Cimino’s career, and is widely considered responsible for sinking United Artists.
The director-friendly production chiefs of the 1960s/1970s were, for one reason or another, gone by the 1980s. The major studios, under a new generation of more bottom line-oriented bosses, subsequently reasserted their authority over creative development and pointed their companies increasingly toward expensive, action/effects-driven spectacles trying to ape the success of movies like Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975). As big-budget thrillers became more prevalent in studio release slates, the real auteur signature became, more often than not, that of the producer.
Five producers who exemplify the trend – and which have probably done the most to define the blockbuster form – are Steven Spielberg, Joel Silver, the team of Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna, and Jerry Bruckheimer.
After years of toiling in TV, and with one respected but commercially disappointing feature to his credit, it was a summer blockbuster – Jaws — which put Steven Spielberg’s career into high orbit. Spielberg seemed to instantly grasp the commercial dynamic of the summer blockbuster. As both director and producer (through his personal production company Amblin Entertainment, and, later, his DreamWorks SKG partnership formed in 1996 with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen), he has grown from pioneer to master of the form.
Over two-thirds of the movies Spielberg produced and/or directed between 1974’s The Sugarland Express and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan opened during the summer months to a collective domestic gross in the neighborhood of $5 billion, with his productions fueling his expansion into the whole gamut of blockbuster ancillaries including video games, merchandising, theme park rides, TV production, etc. Amblin/DreamWorks releases over the years include Poltergeist (1982 with sequels in 1986 and 1988), Gremlins (1984 with a sequel in 1990), The Goonies (1985), Back to the Future (1985 with sequels in 1989 and 1990), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Innerspace (1987), *Batteries Not Included (1987), Arachnophobia (1990), The Flintstones (1994), Casper (1996), Twister (1996), Small Soldiers (1998), The Mask of Zorro (1998 with a sequel in 2005), Galaxy Quest (1999), The Haunting (1999), Gladiator (2000), Shrek (2001 with sequels in 2005, 2007, and 2010), Seabiscuit (2003), House of Sand and Fog (2003), Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), and Transformers (2007 with a sequel in 2009 and a third installment in the works).
Most of the action thrillers Spielberg or his production entities have turned out share a broad-stroked version of the moviemaker’s own sensibility; a mix of pop culture, B-movie nostalgia, Huckleberry Finnish juvenile adventure, and more than a small dose of Spielberg’s own middle class suburban outlook. Spielberg productions often “quote” the movies and TV shows Spielberg and his generation of directors experienced as youths, sometimes overtly (big screen versions of The Flintstones, The Little Rascals,Casper the Friendly Ghost, remakes of 1963’s The Haunting [in 1999] and 1960’s The Time Machine [in 2002], The Mask of Zorro’s hearkening back to the swashbucklers of Old Hollywood, Gladiator’s resurrection of the sword-and-sandal epic), sometimes obliquely (the torrent of Hollywood inside jokes in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  and Gremlins, Galaxy Quest’s affectionate, thinly-veiled lampooning of the original Star Trek TV series). They have also usually been built around a storytelling form Spielberg worked out with producer George Lucas on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), one in which the peaks and valleys of classic cinema drama have been replaced with a non-stop succession of ever greater climaxes – a template now de rigueur for the typical summer blockbuster.
Despite a few notable exceptions, much of Spielberg’s production output has been thrillers, often constructed with an eye toward the valuable audience of young males, avoiding real violence and indulging in a cloying, contrived sentimentality. Despite occasional gems like Men in Black (1997) and Poltergeist, a goodly number of films put out under his banners have been dramatically flimsy projects which seem inspired by commerce more than a creative spark, often coming across as watered-down versions of Spielberg’s own work, i.e. The Goonies as a juvenile transposition of the Indiana Jones adventures by way of The Little Rascals; there’s more than a little bit of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) in *Batteries Not Included.
Movies like Twister (1996), Deep Impact (1998), and remakes The Haunting and The Time Machine demonstrate all of Spielberg’s interest in state-of-the-art movie-making technology, but little of his storytelling heart, being pictures heavy on special effects, light on characterization and credible plot, and often falling back on arbitrary plot devices to move a story along i.e. the competing storm chasers in Twister. Until recently, Spielberg productions regularly reflected his own long-held aversion – one he seemed unable to overcome until such latter works as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan – to dark and/or adult themes.
Upbeat, action-heavy, sentimental, youth-directed, effects-driven, and typically disposable are often the trademarks of “Spielbergian” presentations.
“I make action movies,” Joel Silver once flatly declared, “that’s what I do.” In his first 23 years as a producer, Silver produced 30 movies – most of them action thrillers – with an accumulated domestic gross of $2.5 billion. If Spielberg-produced movies lean toward sweetness and light, Silver’s pull toward the tart and dark. Silver productions have included Commando (1985), Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), Predator (1987, with a sequel in 1990), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Demolition Man (1993), Assassins (1995), Executive Decision (1996), Conspiracy Theory (1997), the remake House on Haunted Hill (1999), Swordfish (2001), the remake Thir13een ghosts (2001), Ghost Ship (2002), and Gothika (2003), but his signature products have been the Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Matrix franchises.
Unlike Spielberg, Silver rarely caters to the youngest viewers. His movies are male adolescent, testosterone-addled, blood-spattered, shoot-‘em-up/hack-‘em-up fantasies, with plots which rarely make much sense and are engineered primarily to get a movie from one pyrotechnic set piece to the next. Spielberg likes amazing effects; Silver goes for old-fashioned gunplay, but ladled on thickly. “Automatic weapons have always been important in movies,” Silver has said, outlining his simple philosophy. “Audiences want to see guys with more firepower.” It’s a credo evident in such never-miss gun-blazers as Lethal Weapon’s LAPD detective – and one-time government assassin – Riggs (Mel Gibson), master-of-all-firearms NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) of the Die Hards, Arnold Schwarzennegger’s one-man army in Commando, Keanu Reeves and his downloaded weapons/hand-to-hand expertise in The Matrix films, and the behind-the-lines strike team in Predator — small as a squad but armed with a battalion’s worth of firepower.
Silver heroes are bigger than life, muscled macho men who can outshoot, outfight, and often out-bleed anyone else in the movie. Think of muscle-bound Schwarzenegger in Predator heading one of the most sinewy casts in action movies: Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham. There’s Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man squaring off against an equally steroidal Wesley Snipes, a pumped-up Bruce Willis in the Die Hards, and lion’s maned Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapons. Even Silver’s version of Sherlock Holmes (2009) featured a more buff version of the deductive detective than had graced any previous rendering of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intellectual hero.
If Spielberg’s productions often dollop out maudlin sentiment, there’s little room for sentiment, romance, or even sex in a Silver actioner. Such elements might slow the action, or show the hero in a vulnerable state, both of which are intolerable in a Joel Silver thriller. Early in the 1990s, Silver proclaimed the only practical role for women on-screen was “…either naked or dead.”
On the few occasions when a Silver thriller has had a female principal – Julia Roberts’ D.A. in Conspiracy Theory, Halle Berry’s terrorized mental patient in Gothika, brassy Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Juliann Marguilies salvage ship First Mate in Ghost Ship, Renee Russo’s kick-boxing cop in Lethal Weapons 3 (1992) and 4 (1998) – there’s something tomboyish about them. They’re the kind of tough-hided, one-of-the-boys women who never threaten the macho posturing of the heroes (but rather support it), and can participate as equals in all the adolescent mayhem.
Fast, loud, bloody, and not for children – these are Joel Silver’s trademarks.
Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna, who built their production company Carolco into a veritable blockbuster factory in the 1980s-1990s, set the still-standing standard for big-scale, star-powered, action-heavy, big-budget thrillers having produced – according to one entertainment writer – “…just about every big, dumb, loud, profitable action movie in town.” Over its 13 years in business, Carolco released 29 titles with a cumulative domestic gross of $1.1 billion.
Though it’s little remembered, Carolco turned out a wide variety of releases, ranging from Holocaust drama Music Box (1989), to biopic Chaplin (1992), the Steve Martin comedy L.A. Story (1991), and Mel Gibson’s production of Hamlet (1990). Still, the company’s fortunes rose and fell with its thrillers, and it was Carolco’s actioners which have had a lasting impact on the blockbuster form through pictures like First Blood (1982 with sequels Rambo: First Blood, Part 2 in 1985, and Rambo III in 1988), Red Heat (1988), Total Recall (1990), Air America (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), Universal Soldier (1992), Cliffhanger (1993), Stargate (1994), Cutthroat Island (1995).
The larger-than-life sensibility rife throughout Carolco’s filmography was illustrated by the company’s preference for such over-sized leads as Sylvester Stallone (the Rambo and Cliffhanger movies), Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Terminator movies as well as Red Heat and Total Recall), and junior league musclemen like Jean-Claude Van Damm and Dolph Lundgren (Universal Soldier). It was also evident in the company’s penchant for directors more notable for their flair for grand scale action than for their dramatic prowess. One Carolco veteran remembers the company having, at one time, a fleet of such directors simultaneously at work in the company’s “…very testosterone-charged…” offices including Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger), James Cameron (Terminator 2), Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Total Recall), and the writing/directing/producing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Universal Soldier, Stargate).
Fueled by the breakout success of their first hit – the aptly titled First Blood – Carolco went on a buying binge of talent, kicking off the age of inflated performer’s salaries and skyrocketing budgets. Kassnar and Vajna were committed believers in the big-budget actioner and in beating the competition on-screen in much the same way as they’d beat it in talent acquisition: by outspending. Most Carolco thrillers were opulently produced movies little remembered for their dialogue or often inane plots, but marked with frequent jaw-dropping action set pieces.
Carolco was also one of the first companies to fully exploit blockbuster merchandising possibilities. First Blood sequel Rambo: First Blood, Part 2, for example, set the stage for a wave of title-related merchandise including Rambo action figures, Rambo bed sheets, and even a Saturday-morning Rambo cartoon series.
But in the 1990s, the company went bankrupt, tripped up by its own free-spending habits and some abysmally bad choices (i.e. Cutthroat Island which cost over $100 million but grossed only $10 million U.S.; and Showgirls, 1995, with a gross of $20.3 million against a budget of $45 million). Still, the company’s template – expensive stars in costly, large-scale, action-heavy adventures – remains a standard blockbuster formula today.
Perhaps only Steven Spielberg’s and George Lucas’ name have as much value on a marquee as that of producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Twenty-five percent of those buying a ticket to a Bruckheimer movie do so because of the producer’s name over the title; remarkable drawing power for a behind-the-scenes operator. He may very well be the current crown prince of the blockbuster, having started with nothing a little over 40 years ago, but now ruling over one of the most successful production companies in Hollywood. Even those who question the quality of Bruckheimer’s efforts – and they are legion – acknowledge his nose for hits. In his 2002 memoir, What Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, producer Art Linson writes that the prime responsibility of any film executive is to have a handle on “…what the audience wants. Unfortunately, no one except Jerry Bruckheimer seems to know what that is.”
Bruckheimer’s explanation for his success is simple. “I’m one of ‘them,’ he told Charlie Rose in a 2003 interview, referring to the general public. A self-professed populist, he told Rose with neither humility nor braggadocio, “I’m in synch with the audience.” The validity of Bruckheimer’s self-analysis is his box office track record. In a winning streak extending back from his 2003 Charlie Rose interview to the 1980s, Bruckheimer’s fifty-odd productions to that point – produced first with partner Don Simpson, and then solo after Simpson’s 1995 death – had collectively earned $12.5 billion. Better than 80% of Bruckheimer’s productions have been thrillers, among them Days of Thunder (1990), Bad Boys (1995 with a sequel in 2003), Crimson Tide (1995), Enemy of the State (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), Kangaroo Jack (2003), National Treasure (2004 with a sequel in 2007), and such signature offerings as Beverly Hills Cop (1984 with a sequel in 1987), Top Gun (1986), Con Air (1997), Black Hawk Down (2001), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003, with sequels in 2006 and 2007, and a fourth entry currently in the works).
A Bruckheimer blockbuster typically has a dose of Spielbergian gratuitous sentiment (convict Nicolas Cage protecting the doll intended for his daughter in Con Air; convict Sean Connery’s concern for his barely scene daughter in The Rock ; Bruce Willis’ self-sacrifice so daughter Liv Tyler can live to marry protégé Ben Affleck in Armageddon ), an inflating injection of Carolco-like scale (the average budget of a Bruckheimer thriller 1990-2007 was $108.4 million), a Joel Silver-sized body-count (one- and two-man armies triumph against overwhelming odds in Con Air, Top Gun, The Rock, Pearl Harbor, and both Bad Boys movies), and, of course, heavy doses of action.
Still, there are ways in which Bruckheimer’s thrillers are unique and distinctive even as they amalgamate the successful traits of other blockbuster strains. More than any of his big-movie colleagues, Bruckheimer has been less committed to specific formulas and has shown an astoundingly acute sense of the affinities of the mainstream audience. Mixed among the quip-laced, over-the-top action of The Rock, Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), Armageddon, Con Air, and the Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop movies are releases like the more brutally realistic Black Hawk Down, the family adventure Kangaroo Jack, a revamping of medieval legend in King Arthur (2004), the wry mix of camp and fantasy in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, as well as such non-thriller successes as the music-driven Flashdance (1983) and the true sports story Remember the Titans (2000).
Along with Bruckheimer’s willingness to maneuver so freely within the thriller category goes an adventurousness in casting against type for his action heroes. At the time Tom Cruise starred in Top Gun, his biggest previous success had been the teen comedy Risky Business (1983), and his only action hero role had been in the fantasy flop Legend (1985); prior to starring in the cop thriller Bad Boys, one-time stand-up comedian Martin Lawrence’s biggest credit had been as the lead in the TV sitcom Martin, and co-star Will Smith’s previous credits included rap recording, starring in the sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, and the lead in the screen adaptation of John Guare’s stage drama, Six Degrees of Separation (1993); both Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp had been actors with checkered box office records and associations with quirky comedies and heavy, sometimes bizarre dramas (such as Cage’s Leaving Las Vegas , Wild at Heart , and Moonstruck ; and Depp’s Donnie Brasco , Ed Wood , and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? ) before Bruckheimer turned them into action thriller icons with Cage in The Rock, Con Air, remake Gone in 60 Seconds, and National Treasure, and Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
But Bruckheimer thrillers do have their standard features, most visibly the heavy troweling on of action and violence. In the standard Bruckheimer action thriller, character and drama are secondary. The producer’s usual development process pushes writers through several drafts before turning the screenplay over to “hired guns” to punch up specific scenes or to create particular pieces of action even if it means that, as a result, characters act inconsistently or speak with a different “voice” from one scene to the next, or that elements of the plot cease to make much sense. The story for Crimson Tide, for example, was first drummed up by screenwriter Michael Schiffer and novelist Richard P. Henrick before it passed through the re-writing hands of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Towne, and Steve Zaillian.
One of the more egregious examples of the failings of the Bruckheimer process is in The Rock. Government officials agree to a press blackout of the crisis at hand (renegade U.S. soldiers hold hostages on Alcatraz Island while threatening to launch biochemical weapons at the city) even though Sean Connery has already left an impossible-to-miss tornado-like path of destruction through the city during a completely gratuitous car chase.
With so much physical action, dramatic lines and characters become, unsurprisingly, simple-minded. Bruckheimer is a devout disciple of clear, unambivalent Good Guy vs. Bad Guy storytelling as he explained to The New York Times while promoting his 2004 summer entry, King Arthur: “It’s heroism, camaraderie, brotherhood. (The knights) are fighting…for the moral high ground – all the kinds of themes I love.” These Bruckheimer-treasured themes reach flag-waving peaks in the “pretty-boy jingoism” and “synethetic apple pie” of his military-themed projects: Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Pearl Harbor, and Black Hawk Down.
More than the blockbusters of his big-budget peers, Bruckheimer’s thrillers also favor a similar visual look of quick edits and eye-entrancing cinematography, a look some have compared to being that of “…essentially MTV videos at feature film length.” Bruckheimer has gravitated toward directors who share the same, strong, visual sense he himself developed first as a youngster interested in photography, and then during his first professional incarnation as a maker of TV commercials. Bruckheimer’s most commercially successful collaborations have been with directors Tony Scott and Michael Bay (both began their careers in commercials and, in Bay’s case, music videos as well) who, between them, account for nine Bruckheimer-produced hits; the largest single block in the producer’s filmography.
Some consider Michael Bay the directorial yin to Bruckheimer’s producer’s yang. Bruckheimer provided Bay with his big screen directorial debut with Bad Boys and produced all of the director’s subsequent features until 2005’s The Island. With Bay’s hyperkinetic visuals and a near-dismissive attitude toward character and plot, he seemed perfectly at home amid the action-drenched sci fi nonsense of Armageddon and the atavistic Pearl Harbor. The box office scoreboard of their relationship testifies as to how in synch Bay’s and Bruckheimer’s sensibilities were with each other and with the international action thriller audience: with his five Bruckheimer-produced features, Michael Bay became the youngest director to reach the $1 billion mark in cumulative worldwide grosses.
There are still filmmakers that hearken back to that creatively audacious age of two generations ago. Scorsese has managed to survive and turn out some of his most popular work, and there are a handful of new tyros who have managed to turn the blockbuster spectacle on its ear and produce something both spectacular as well as unique and personalized, like Christopher Nolan.
But, for the most part, the true cinema artist – the auteur – has been pushed out of the mainstream, relegated to the ever-dwindling art house circuit. It was a perfect storm of circumstances which brought auteurism and the mass audience together for one of the most memorable eras in American commercial cinema; circumstances that, like an alignment of the planets, is not likely to happen again.
- Bill Mesce